Tombs of Buganda Kings
The Tombs of Buganda Kings in Kasubi are regarded as the major spiritual centre for the Buganda people, the largest Ugandan ethnic group.
Four successive Kabakas (kings) of Buganda were buried in the same tomb house at Kasubi, the building which is at the core of this nomination. They are:
- Mutesa I (1835-1884)
- Mwanga II (1867-1903)
- Daudi Chwa II (1896-1939)
- Sir Edward Mutesa II (1924-1969)
Map of Tombs of Buganda KingsLoad map
Visit January 2016
The ‘Kasubi Tombs’, as the Tombs of the Buganda Kings are known locally, may be the only tourist attraction of Kampala (a capital city with 2.5 million inhabitants). And then came that devastating fire on March 10, 2010: the main thatched structure with the 4 tombs of the former kings and their regalia burned to the ground. The cause is still unknown: was it arson or was it struck by lightning? Anyway: it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Still I found it an interesting site, and it is an easy place to visit shortly before leaving Uganda via Entebbe Airport.
The tombs are situated on a hill about three kilometers outside of Kampala city centre. Due to a traffic jam my minibus from Entebbe had a hard time reaching the bus station, so I got out somewhere along the way and approached a boda-boda. The guy immediately understood where I wanted to go, and we took off zigzagging through the dense traffic. There are even a few signs along the way to announce the proximity of a world heritage site, a small detail that always makes me happy.
One enters the site through the only original thatched building that remains after the 2010 fire. There are two guards at the door opening, each associated with a different Buganda clan that is in charge of security. The modern entrance including guest book and ticket seller is a little further inside the compound. There they tell me that women are required to wear skirts, but they do have a wraparound cloth that I can use to cover my pants.
After the formalities (there’s a 10,000 UGS / 2.5 EUR entrance fee), I was introduced to a guide who would give me a tour of the site. The tour begins with the story of the origins of this place. The Buganda kingdom dates back to the 13th century, and since then there have been 36 kings. During the English colonization in the 19th century they lost their worldly power. With the exception of a few brief intervals during the dictatorship of Obote and Amin in the 1970s and 80s, they have nevertheless kept their ceremonial function until today.
The destroyed structure, an eight meter high circular building with a thatched roof, was the centerpiece of the site. The progress of reconstruction is slow. According to the guide that is caused by the many ceremonial rules that have to be followed. But the costs were an obstacle too: Japan recently has chipped in, and it is expected that at the end of 2016 the large thatched dome will be resurrected again.
This main building is located on a circular plaza, with rows of houses around its edge. These houses belonged to the favorite widows of the deceased kings. The first king had as many as 84 women. Even today the descendants of the widows live on the property. There is a kind of village at the back where 35 people live permanently, and there is arable land for them to grow some food.
At the far end of the site lies a cemetery where members of the royal family are buried. This is similar with the tradition of the Toro, whose tombs I visited a few days before near Fort Portal. Just like the Buganda, the Toro are one of the four remaining traditional kingdoms in Uganda. I'm glad I had been able to enter the Toro tombs and see the ceremonial possessions of the deceased kings, because here in Kasubi these have largely been lost during the fire.
Near the exit lies the Royal Drum House. Drums are kept here that are used for ceremonial occasions, such as a visit of a member of the royal family or a death. Women cannot enter here, but you are allowed to take pictures from the doorway. This restored house shows how the reed layers are attached to make a thatched roof.
My half hour guided visit ended at the shop where they sell paintings on bark cloth. They are pricey but seem done well to my untrained eye (I did not buy one). The tradition of the Buganda is closely connected with the production and use of bark cloth. The cloth fabric is made from the soft bark of the fig tree – there are still a few of those trees at the Kasubi complex and the guide had shown me these. Bark cloth has been manufactured in Uganda for centuries (until the introduction of cotton by Arab traders), and it represents Uganda's sole entry on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
It wasn’t much to look at. Some concrete pillars, some buckled girders, some plastic sheeting. Beyond it, the compound was scruffy and dilapidated. Old women in trances lay on the steps, naked children washed from bowls, flies swarmed around the matoke and the scent of incense hung in the air. I was in the presence of royalty…
Visiting the tombs of the Buganda kings at Kasubi in north-west Kampala really represents the dual nature of being a Unesco World Heritage hunter. Because I was interested in World Heritage Sites I knew that the tomb of the kings had been almost completely destroyed by a fire (was it an accident? was it arson?) less than two years previously and so was unlikely to repay a visit. But because I was interested in World Heritage Sites I also knew that I had to visit it whilst in Kampala. Such is ones lot!
And I was glad I did. Even with the central tomb (the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga) severely damaged there was enough to see to reward the 10,000 shilling entrance fee (and the fight through Kampala’s notorious traffic to get there). While the site may not have been altogether sacred it was certainly ceremonial and so that entrance fee got us a guide, Fred. We entered through the large, low guard hut. Being a guard is a hereditary post filled from certain clans. Service seems to be lifelong, judging from the age of the guard I met. Fred explained the significance of the site. When a king of the Buganda kingdom – the kabaka – died he was interred in the location of his palace. His successor would need to establish a new palace in a different location and, when the time came, be buried there. And so on and so forth. Kasubi was unusual because four successive ssekabakai, spanning the period 1835 to 1969, were buried here. He led s through the royal drum house (the Ndoga Obukaba) where a heap of drums (and a large wooden model cannon from the late 19th century) were stored. The drums were used to communicate over distances. Carrying on we reached the inner courtyard (the Olugya). The central tomb stood straight ahead at the far side of a semicircular fenced enclosure.
Fred explained that the tomb was once the largest thatched building of its type. Not much remained to view now, though he assured me that the Baganda will restore it through a combination of traditional and high-tech skills. They possess 3D scans of what it used to look like (and which has reassured them that the bodies of the four ssekabakai, buried 13 feet underground in the ‘forest’, are still in place and intact). The delay, he told me, was with the ancient skills – knowledge of ancient techniques has more or less died out so they were having to train up new craftsmen from scratch.
A touch of homeliness was provided that other areas of the site were inhabited. The women we met were queens of Buganda – or more properly the descendants of queens. When a kabaka died, his widows were relocated to the compound. They then raised their families here. I don’t know what the protocol is with widows and descendants remarrying but there were small children running around and the last kabaka to be buried here died in 1969. The wives themselves had a simple open-air graveyard at the rear of the property. Rather than being interred in an underground ‘forest’ within a large house they had an enviable hillside setting looking out over Makarere University and the city centre.
A word should perhaps be said about nomenclature. The country of Uganda takes its name from the kingdom of Buganda. The people of that kingdom are called the Baganda (or just Ganda for short) and an individual member of the tribe is a Muganda. Their language is called Luganda. And their heartlands were around the north-west of Lake Victoria, the area where Uganda’s capital, Kampala, sits. The kingdom still has some remnant authority, though the level of toleration shown to it by the national government ebbs and flows. When the British established their ‘Protectorate’ over Uganda in 1894 they largely did so on the basis of the centralised administrative system already set up by Buganda. Individual Baganda were promoted within the Protectorate – the British had a love of sponsoring certain favoured tribes or castes within their empire. Buganda was, perhaps, fortunate that at the time the British reached what is now Uganda their kingdom was regionally dominant. Had they arrived a century earlier perhaps the rival Kingdom of Bunyoro out towards Lake Albert would have been the centre of the Protectorate instead. Regardless of Buganda’s dominant position in the new colony, this did not mean that relationships were always good. The second of the four ssekabakai buried here, Mwanga II, died in the Seychelles after being exiled by the British. Ironically enough, the fourth, Edward Muteesa II, was knighted by the British but still died in exile – this time in London - after having fallen out with Uganda’s post-independence president Milton Obote who abolished Uganda’s kingdoms. While Yoweri Museveni later reintroduced the kingdoms it is perhaps of note that the tomb burnt down during a period of unrest concerning the rights and powers of the Buganda Kingdom. Despite the promise of a full investigation, the cause of the fire is still unknown.
World Heritage-iness: 2
My Experience: 2
(Visited Dec 2011)
It was a rainy day when I visited the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi in Kampala, Uganda, in summer 2014. The grey afternoon served as a fine backdrop to a World Heritage Site that had seen its share of troubles after a fire destroyed several of the buildings in 2010. The site had been inscribed for its cultural significance for the Baganda people, and the centerpiece was a large thatched house containing the royal tombs of four Buganda kings who reigned in the 19th and 20th centuries. When I visited, all that remained of the central house was a steel frame and a concrete platform awaiting reconstruction, all surrounded by a metal fence. Sheaves of straw were positioned around the hill in preparation for the repairs of some of the thatched houses surrounding the central house. I walked through the drum house and other houses that were not destroyed or had been rebuilt, and admired the craftsmanship of the roofs as seen from inside. One thing that surprised me in some houses was the presence of modern material such as concrete and steel in addition to traditional materials; these changes had been made in the 20th century. As I understand it, the overall reconstruction work of the tombs is still in progress, but I would love to see them once they are rebuilt.
Logistics: The Kasubi Tombs are located in Kampala, and can be reached by private transportation.
A place a used to study about, every time I read about Buganda Muzibu Azaala Mpanga came across. To my minds this really indicated a treasure heritage. Today it may not look the same physically due to the destruction, but in belief of the Muganda it will ever remain there and his Heritage.
It is attributed to the architectural development of Buganda for the past, a symbol of religion (traditional beliefs) which which is continuous up to today because many still regard it in the same manner like before.
Having participated in the program of the youth world wide under UNESCO (World Heritage Volunteers 2012), it was an opportunity for me to know how important we should preserve it, how useful it is to generations to come; i can't finish them.
And am yearning for this year's program again to participate in the construction to fulfill my dream of one of the participants of conservation practices at the once a state house for my former King "Muteesa 1".
THE UNIQUE TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE OF ITS KIND IN THE WORLD. (1882)
2010 In Danger
"In March 2010, fire almost completely destroyed the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga building, the main structure at the site which contained four royal Buganda tombs. The property, an outstanding example of an architectural style developed by the Buganda Kingdom since the 13th century, will be reconstructed." (unesco)
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The tombs lie in Uganda's capital Kampala, in the Kasubi suburb.
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